The Red Star Line Experience: How the Movies Saw It

The first commercial movie about the immigrant experience was “The Immigrant,” starring Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, “The Tramp.”  Filmed in 1917 , the movie was Hollywood’s first take on the immigrant passenger experience.   In a major scene in the film, Chaplin’s lovable tramp is faced with a stony-faced immigration official at what is meant to be Ellis Island.  Chaplin kicks the officer in typical slapstick fashion.

More than forty years later in the 1950′s J. Edgar Hoover pointed to the scene as an obvious example of the actor’s “un-American” beliefs when the actor was being barred from returning back to the U.S. from a trip to his native Britain.  Chaplin did not return to the U.S. until many years later when he received an “Honorary Oscar” in 1972.

At the time that it was made, “The Immigrant,” would have been seen for less than five cents by former immigrants themselves in theatres around the United States and Canada. 

Our mystery girl would have been a young woman by then, perhaps going to the movies on a Saturday night with her fiancee or young husband.  The film, with its scenes of cramped quarters, seasickness and bad food, would have made her laugh, as it did thousands of immigrant movie-goers who endured the same experience.

The next time the on board immigration experience was made into a Hollywood hit was 80 years later when Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jack Dawson won a ticket to steerage in a polker game in 1997′s “Titanic.”

Use the link below to watch a free, public domain version of “The Immigrant.”

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